By Seth Truscott
Grant Supports Sustainable, Urban Ag Education in Puget Sound and Beyond
As “green-collar” jobs continue to emerge, a three-year, $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation brings together Washington State University and several Puget Sound community colleges to support undergraduate students interested in pursuing educational opportunities in sustainable agriculture and working on small urban farms.
Edmonds Community College leads the SAgE (Sustainable Agriculture Education) collaborative project, which builds on a previous grant that successfully introduced a sustainable urban agriculture program to Seattle Central Community College, said Jason Niebler, project director and co-principal investigator on the NSF grant. Part of the focus is to streamline transfer options from high school to two-and-four-year colleges, including EdCC, SCCC, Skagit Valley College and WSU. As the collaboration extends throughout the Puget Sound, students will also dive into service-learning and internship programs.
“WSU is helping shape what we hope will be a bioregional consortium of colleges making course agreements, and funneling students who want to continue on and can matriculate into WSU programs, specifically the organic agriculture major,” Niebler said.
Considering that recent USDA census data estimates the average Washington State farmer is 57 years old, the grant also helps address the challenge of educating the next generation of farmers about science-based methods for sustainable agriculture.
Community college students will have opportunities to work with WSU graduate students and faculty at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon. Field internships, with a production-based “seeds-to-sales” learning lab, will provide educational opportunities for students. Through partnership with Viva Farms in the Skagit Valley, students will also have the chance to sell their produce at roadside stands and farmers markets. Based on the Viva Farms incubator model, the grant will help establish a student farm in the Sammamish Valley near SCCC and EdCC.
Both the lab and fieldwork will give community college students real-world experiences while providing a taste of what their education could look like at a four-year university, said Brad Gaolach, co-principal investigator on the NSF grant and WSU Pierce County Extension director.
“Fundamentally, what changed my own education and career path was something like SAgE,” Gaolach said. “Whether at a two-year or four-year college, the ability at an early career stage or as an undergraduate to get hands-on practice is what makes a world class education face-to-face.”
Whether you’re a farmer or a food industry manager, WSU’s online certificate in organic agriculture can help you hone your skills.
The certificate provides training in the agricultural sciences, including complex agriculture and food systems. Students take two core soil science courses and at least three food, farming, and ecosystem elective courses, as well as a three-credit “on-the-ground” internship, for a total of 18 semester credits.
The certificate is designed for agriculture professionals wanting to learn about organic methods, anyone interested in beginning a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm, home gardeners, WSU agriculture students, and others with an interest in organic agriculture. Check the website for more information and a short video about the program.
Organic Ag Major
Organic food production is one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture, with retail sales increasing by 10 percent annually since 1991. With both educational and research programs, Washington State has been a leader in this burgeoning new industry. The revolutionary organic ag systems major is the first of its kind to be offered in the United States. Students in this major take a diverse array of courses in the natural, environmental, economic, and social sciences, as well as a number of courses focused on organic production practices.
Students wanting a hands-on degree experience thrive in the organic major. WSU has a four-acre certified organic teaching farm, which is expanding to become a 30-acre multi-disciplinary organic farming operation and community center. This farm is an invaluable tool where students learn to produce certified organic vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers that they distribute through local food banks, on-campus food service, a 100-member CSA (community supported agriculture), and a local farmers market.
It’s Time to Get Serious about Soil
The U. S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology’s list of the top scientific challenges facing agriculture includes “the need to manage new pests, pathogens, and invasive plants; increase the efficiency of water use; reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture; adapt to a changing climate; and accommodate demands for bioenergy – all while continuing to produce safe and nutritious food at home and for those in need abroad.” All are challenges that WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) has tackled in its first 20 years.
But David Montgomery, a University of Washington geomorphologist and author of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, argues that saving our soils is missing from that list. As part the recent 20th anniversary celebration of CSANR, Montgomery told the story of how fundamental soil is for sustaining civilizations and how agricultural practices throughout history have accelerated the loss of this life-sustaining resource.
Under natural conditions, soil is generally produced as fast as it erodes. But with the introduction of the plow, agricultural soils erode much faster than they are generated. Though the implications are grave, Montgomery contends that society as a whole is not talking about this critical issue. Soil erosion, he argues, occurs at an alarming pace, geologically, but on the human time scale it occurs so slowly that it is difficult for us to observe the loss until hindsight reveals its often devastating impacts. Consider Montgomery’s extreme example where, between 1911 and 1961, soil on the Palouse disappeared at the rate of about an inch per year. What may not seem significant over the course of a single year added up to the loss of about five feet of soil over the course of 50 years.
In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt said that “a nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” Without soil we will be unable to feed the world’s burgeoning population. Montgomery stresses that preserving soil resources and rebuilding soil is fundamental to sustaining agriculture and human civilization. He offers the hope that a deeper and more public understanding of soil as an ecological system may foster a new agriculture that feeds the world based on ecological processes such as nutrient cycling.
Montgomery argues us that building a new agriculture based on soil ecosystem dynamics is more important than ever. It turns out that soil does earn a short paragraph in the Presidential Council’s 47-page report. CSANR researchers and their community partners have long understood the implications of soil building and as the Center looks ahead to its next 20 years the research agenda will continue to focus on such critical issues.
For more information on WSU soils research, check out these articles previously published in Green Times:
Riding the Nitrogen Cycle – soil scientist Doug Collins is working to develop cheap and easy-to-use tests to help farmers determine when to add fertilizer to soils.
Soil Testing Guide Available - soil scientist Doug Collins recently published a guide on soil testing for vegetable farmers.
Saving African Soils - WSU scientists have an innovative idea, called “perenniation,” for reinvigorating ancient, depleted soils.
This article was originally published on WSU’s Perspectives on Sustainability blog, where WSU organic and sustainable ag experts from the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources post opinions, ideas, and updates about their work and current issues. Check out a short video about CSANR on Perspectives on Sustainability.
Social Sciences Degree + Organic Ag = Successful Career
Organic agriculture certification from WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences can spell career success for even non-agriculture majors. Just ask anthropology graduate Haley Paul. The new assistant in extension for urban agriculture at University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in Phoenix, Paul credits her college preparation in organic agriculture and an internship at the WSU Organic Farm for placing her on the path to where she is today. And her organic agriculture exposure blended perfectly with her anthropology bachelor’s degree, which she received in 2008.
“Organic agriculture is a method of growing food that has the potential to lessen the impact on the environment,” Paul said. “What I focused on in my anthropology course work were the questions, ‘How do humans use their natural resources, and how can they do it better so they do not deplete the very resources that sustain life?’ My organic agriculture internship combined with my anthropology degree contributed to what I ultimately ended up researching and writing for my Honors College thesis.”
That thesis, titled “Bigger, But Better? An Examination of Food System Scale and Its Connection to Long-Term Sustainability,” earned Paul runner-up honors in WSU Libraries’ Student Research Excellence Awards in 2008.
Paul worked at the WSU Organic Farm in her senior year and found the hands-on work an invaluable experience, she said, given her background before coming to Pullman. “I grew up in Phoenix, a city of over a million people, with no concept of where my food came from.”
She was initially drawn to organic agriculture when she discovered that the good food she ate equated to good results in her WSU cross-country and track running. Over time, Paul learned about the impacts of agriculture on the larger community around her.
“I realized that agriculture is an extremely valuable enterprise that can be conducted in multiple ways,” she said. “Watching the daily activities necessary to keep the WSU Organic Farm running smoothly instilled in me an appreciation of what it takes to bring food from the field to the store or farmers market, and ultimately into our homes.”
All too familiar with the arid conditions of the Southwest, Paul also developed a keen appreciation of water as a precious resource through her work on the WSU Organic Farm. “To be a successful grower you, a) need a reliable water source and, b) need to use it as efficiently as possible. It seems a natural progression that I left Pullman after four years and returned home to Phoenix to study agriculture and water policy for my master’s degree in sustainability,” she said. In her first job at UA Cooperative Extension, Paul served as water resources coordinator, managing an urban water conservation program for landscape professionals. In her new post, she works with stakeholders who want to grow food in an urban environment.
“Urban agriculture in Maricopa County includes backyard gardens, school gardens, community gardens, and small-scale farms,” Paul said. “We provide social and technical assistance so that those interested in starting a garden or farm can sustain it in the most efficient manner possible here in the desert.
“There is a significant movement toward eating locally, supporting local growers, shopping at farmers markets, and having a share in a CSA in Phoenix,” she added. “There are even people who want to start urban farms. In fact, my new position was created as a result of the increased demand for urban agriculture efforts in Maricopa County.”
Paul hopes to eventually work as a sustainability extension agent, addressing current social, economic, and environmental concerns by providing practical solutions and applied research to make lives and communities better, she said.
“I think that the land-grant mission and the extension system are as relevant now as they were 150 years ago when the Morrill Act was passed, and in 1914, when the Smith-Lever Act created the nation’s Extension system,” Paul said. “Extension needs to be prepared to serve the needs of an increasingly urban world without losing its credibility within the rural and agricultural communities.”
What would Paul tell a future Cougar considering a major in organic agriculture? While she highly recommends pursuing it, she also believes more students should be exposed to the social sciences.
“In the end you can have the best data that prove facts, but unless you know how people operate and what can get them to change their behaviors to adopt more sustainable practices, it will be an uphill battle,” she said. “I think combining policy studies with organic agriculture would be a fantastic pairing for an undergraduate career.”
Learn to Grow Your Own Groceries
Whether you have access to just a tiny deck or a huge backyard, you can learn to grow fresh, healthy food with the techniques being taught during the 2013 WSU Snohomish County Extension Growing Groceries Volunteer Mentor Training.
Local and regional experts will share the latest research-based practices on topics including how to choose a site, building healthy soil, starting from seed, compost, irrigation, managing pests, vertical and small space gardening, food safety, and much, much more. The program’s goal is to increase community access to fresh, healthy food by training volunteer mentors to share their food-growing knowledge with others. Teachers can earn up to 32 Northwest Educational Service clock hours by completing the Saturdays-only program.
The 2013 training includes four classroom and hands-on sessions, Feb. 9 and 23, Mar. 9 and 23, from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at WSU Snohomish County Extension’s Cougar Auditorium in McCollum Park, 600 128th St SE, Everett. In addition, there are four once a month hands-on, in-the-garden sessions, Apr. 20, May 18, June 15, and July 20, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; locations TBA.
Program graduate Diane Decker-Isle, who donates time and expertise at several community and food bank gardens in Snohomish, related her experience as a Growing Groceries Volunteer Mentor. “I’ve always gardened, so I was surprised at how much I learned not only from the training, but from the other mentors as well. It’s a great network to tap into long after the training ends. I’ve really enjoyed working with people in the community gardens. Families that come in knowing very little go home and plant their own gardens. When I run into these folks later, they share stories about how much they are growing and eating from their new gardens. These stories really inspire me to keep working with our community gardens.”
Since its 2009 inception, the Growing Groceries program has trained over 80 volunteer mentors. Many of these graduates are helping as mentors in over 28 different Snohomish County community, school, church, and food bank gardens. Visit GrowingGroceries.wsu.edu/SnohomishCountyFoodGardens.htm for a growing list of gardens in the area.
Tuition is $135 for those able to volunteer at least 35 hours over the next year or $185 for those not able to make a volunteer commitment. Deadline for application is February 1, 2013. To download an application for the training, visit GrowingGroceries.wsu.edu. For more information about the program, contact Sharon Collman, WSU Snohomish County Extension Educator, 425-357-6025 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For registration information, contact Karie Christensen at 425-357-6039 or e-mail email@example.com.